Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here's a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.

1. An interviewer contacted a reference I didn't approve

I recently started a job search, and I reached out to various people on LinkedIn to see if they knew of any open positions. One of those people was an old co-worker, and he had me get in touch with the CEO of the small company he currently works for. I emailed the CEO my resume, and he set up an interview. The interview was mostly fine, but toward the end he mentioned that he spoke with his employee about me (as expected), and that he also spoke with another former co-worker who left my company more recently. I had never mentioned the second person's name. Fortunately, both said nice, positive things.

Is contacting someone I hadn't offered as a reference a common practice? Or is this a huge red flag? To tell you the truth, it made me really uncomfortable. I never would have asked for a reference from this person as I don't like his work ethic. I'm getting a sinking feeling that this CEO likes to check up on people behind their backs.

Green responds:

If the CEO knew the person, it's not at all uncommon that he'd check with him about his impressions of you. This is what's called "off-list references" and they're very normal. They work like this: If I get an application from a candidate and realize that someone I know and trust has worked with her, I'm likely to check with them to get their impressions -- because they might tell me things that will prompt me to fast-track the candidate, or reject them outright, or probe more deeply into specific areas than I otherwise might. (I wouldn't do this if they were currently working with the candidate, but otherwise most people consider it perfectly fair to do.)

This is one reason that reputation matters so much: You don't always get to pick your references. Employers may reach out to them directly, and you never know who might know each other.

2. Should I tell my interviewer I don't want kids?

I'm applying for jobs in a competitive market and a notoriously sexist field, and I'm wondering if it would be strange to mention on my resume that I absolutely, categorically, don't ever want kids? Obviously I wouldn't phrase it that way, but I want to reassure potential employers that I won't leave with a bun in the oven a few months or years into the job, and I know they can't ask me.

Would this come across as really weird? Is there any way I can introduce it in the cover letter or interview instead, maybe?

Green responds:

Yes, that would come across as really odd. Nothing about having kids, their existence or non-existence, ever belongs on a resume. Your resume is about your work history. It doesn't belong in a cover letter either, and it will seem out-of-place and will likely make employers uncomfortable if you include it there.

It's possible that you could find a natural opening to mention it in a job interview, but I'm still pretty skeptical. If you sound like you think your child-bearing plans are relevant, that will make good, non-sexist interviewers really uncomfortable (because you'll be implying they'd like to discriminate if they could), and those are the very ones who you don't want to screen out.

You can certainly mention that you don't have commitments that would prevent you from being able to travel or from working difficult hours, but I'd leave it there.

3. The person who asked me for a meeting didn't show up for it

A colleague of my husband contacted me about a mentee who had moved to my city and was interested in my line of work. I agreed to a one-hour informational interview and a tour, although it took a quite complicated chain of emails to set up a time, because of my travel schedule. It wasn't convenient for me, but I thought, "Well, this has been going on for months." I put it on my schedule for this week and cleared some of my assistant's time right after for a tour. The person was a no-show.

Then I get this email at 10:00 the next night: "I am incredibly sorry about not showing up yesterday. I recently had my phone updated, and as a result, quite a few things, including many of my appointment reminders, got deleted. I did not realize that our meeting was one of them until tonight, when I was going through my email, and that I had completely missed my appointment. This past week has been especially crazy, so without all of my reminders, I forgot. I am really interested in seeing what you do, and if you are still willing, I would like to try to reschedule. Again, my apologies."

I am at a loss as how to respond. No, I do not want to reschedule. That makes me feel mean. Thoughts?

Green responds:

Well, this kind of thing does happen, and in general I'd cut the person some slack for it -- but that just means not marking them in your head as A Horrible Person; it doesn't mean that you're obligated to reschedule if you don't want to. And it's reasonable to think that if the appointment took months to schedule, they'd remember it was looming, even without calendar reminders.

If you don't feel like hassling with this again, it would be reasonable to say something like this: "Unfortunately, my schedule right now makes it difficult for me to reschedule (you saw how tough it was to clear time the first time around!). It sounds like I won't be able to help, but good luck in your search."

That's not mean. You went out of your way to do the person a favor, she didn't come through on her end, and you can reasonably decide that you're extended yourself as far as you're willing for a stranger.

4. My office is in the lunchroom

I've been at my current job for almost three years. In the first year, my office space was relocated into our small lunchroom. The staff lost their lunchroom and I'm stuck with constant interruptions of people coming in there to use the sink or fridge. There is literally nowhere to eat your lunch (or a quiet place for me to work). Everyone is too scared to tell the owners how completely inconvenient this is to everyone, especially to me, who is forced to make small talk while I'm trying to work. I am on maternity leave and really don't want to go back there and work in that environment. How should this be handled?

Green responds:

Is there anywhere else you could sit, even squeezing into another less-than-ideal space that at least wouldn't be the lunchroom? If so, propose that: "I've found that it's difficult to work in the lunchroom; I'm regularly interrupted and it's tough to focus. Would it be possible to move to ___?"

I'm guessing, though, that there isn't anywhere to move you to, which is why they put you there in the first place. But maybe there are other solutions to minimize the distractions, like putting up a barrier (like a cubicle wall) between you and the sink and fridge. Either way, I'd still raise it with your manager, especially since you're at the point of wanting to quit over it. There's really no way to get this addressed without speaking up about it, and it's a pretty reasonable thing to raise.

That said, if the reason everyone is scared to speak up about something so mild is because the owners are nightmares, that's the real problem, and that's where I'd focus your thinking about whether or not to return.

5. I was interviewed by the person I'd be replacing

I have had several interviews during which the interviewer told me that they are in the role currently but have submitted their resignation, and that they are interviewing me as their replacement. More than once, the interviewer even said it was their last day at the company. Isn't that awkward to share during an interview? 

First, I don't think they would hire carefully, because why should they care since they are leaving? Second, it makes me want to ask why they are leaving and it definitely gives me a red flag. Interviews are partly about selling the company to the applicant to want to work for them, so it certainly makes me think twice about working there. I will appreciate some insight into this.

Green responds:

It's not a red flag that the interviewer is leaving. People leave companies; after all, that's usually why there's an open position for you to interview for. And it's not unusual to have a departing employee help interview for their replacement, depending on the role. If they're conscientious before they resign, they're not going to suddenly become unconscientious afterward. Most conscientious people care a lot about finding someone good to replace them.

The only thing that would worry me is if this is the only person you're getting a chance to talk with. You'd want to be able to meet and talk with your prospective new manager, at a minimum.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Aug 27, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.